MEXICO CITY -- Dr. Dora Linda Guzman de Peña spent more than seven years trying to patent an innovative substance that prevents stored cereals, seeds, spices and nuts from developing a toxic fungus deadly to humans.
But the patent process in Mexico was so complicated, she said, that she nearly gave up. That's when she came across a city-sponsored program created to help scientists and inventors patent their ideas and commercialize them in Mexico and around the globe. Soon after getting involved with the new program and participating in a course on patenting and entrepreneurship, she earned the patent number that has opened the door for her and two partners to launch a business, TransBioTech.
Home to dozens of universities, including the country's highly ranked public Autonomous National University in the capital, Mexico has no dearth of scientists and inventors. Yet patent office statistics show that foreigners make the vast majority of patent requests each year -- not Mexican nationals. In 2010, foreigners were behind 96.5 percent of 14,000 patent requests, according to Dr. America Padilla, director of the city's Institute of Science and Technology, created in 2006 to spur the patenting of Mexican inventions.
Here, in a stone building dating back centuries to the Spanish conquest, Padilla works to connect inventors with the investors who could finance their ideas.
The institute facilitates the patent application process; sponsors workshops in which inventors can brainstorm with business and marketing experts how to capitalize on their innovations; and holds fairs in which they can pitch ideas directly to companies or venture capitalists. The institute also invests directly in innovations that can solve the city's problems in the areas of health, transportation or sustainability.
The capacity for invention at a national level, compared with other emerging economies, has historically been very low, Padilla said. Until recently, innovation "was in a state of coma."
The numbers are still anemic but improving.
Mexican nationals made 951 patent requests in 2010, up two-thirds from 574 in 2006. Patent concessions rose by nearly three-fourths to 229 from 132 over the same period.
So far, the institute has aided the creation of two high-tech companies and ushered 44 patented projects to commercialization or a business plan. Those include a company that produces data storage hardware and software, one that designs and manufactures equipment for neonatal care and another that improves functional control in the city's expansive Metro system.
Guzman de Peña sees a world market for her innovative chemical that prevents stored foodstuffs from developing aflatoxin, the deadly toxin produced by a fungus that flourishes in storage and threatens farm inventories worldwide. The product is promising enough that it earned a gold medal at the Taipei International Invention Show and Technomart in September. She has applied for an international patent, as well.
Guzman de Peña, who is affiliated with the National Polytechnic Institute's CINVESTAV research center, said the historic disconnect in Mexico between the laboratory and the marketplace has to do as much with a lack of business-minded culture in academia here as with what she sees as an arduous patent office bureaucracy. But both are changing, she said.
Her research center has begun to vet its process for guiding scientists through the patent process, while Mexico City's Institute for Science and Technology has helped "open doors."
In Mexico, she said, "institutions are finally waking up."